Arrowhead superintendent critical of new school report cards
State issues school report cards
Wisconsin released its preliminary school report cards last week, and, as expected, scores for area schools reflected favorably on each district.
Hartland-Lakeside's School of Community Learning topped the list for Lake Country schools with a score of 88.6, a measure that "significantly exceeds expectations," according to the new grading system. To the east, in the Hamilton School District, Marcy Elementary scored 90.8, the highest of any school in our survey.
Meanwhile, Arrowhead, long a standard bearer for area schools, scored an 80.2, which "exceeds expectations."
But Arrowhead Superintendent Craig Jefson fears that the new model does not accurately reflect a school's performance. He also fears that parents, the community and the media will simply use the composite score to compare schools, without understanding what the number actually means.
The state moved for the first time this year to a school performance evaluation model that increased expectations for proficiency in reading and math compared to the previously used standards. As a result, scores in the core subject areas look worse than in previous years, when the state used a different method of measurement.
Previously, the state used the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination (WKCE) as the primary bar by which to measure a school's performance. The new state report card system still uses the WKCE, but it also assesses student growth, the number of students on track for college and career readiness and closing gaps, which tracks the performance of specific sub-groups such asminorities or low-income students.
Whereas in the past, parents and administrators eagerly awaited WKCE scores to see how their school stacked up against the competition, the state report cards use a complex mathematical formula that takes into account all four of those measures to come up with a composite numerical score.
Wisconsin will eventually do away with the WKCE and instead adopt the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which will compare students on a national level rather than a state level.
Arrowhead, which is highly regarded as one of the top high schools in the state, received a 75.2 on an initial report card issued to the school earlier this fall and not released to the public.
That mark put Arrowhead in the lower half of schools with scores in the range of "exceeds expectations." Several weeks after issuing the initial report cards, the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) adjusted Arrowhead's score to an 80.2, closer to the top range of scores that exceed expectations.
But Jefson contends that the scores fail to tell the whole story.
In student achievement, Arrowhead scored 90.7 out of 100. The state average is 66.5. In the post-secondary readiness score, Arrowhead tallied 91.6. The state average is 82.3. Since the high school is its own school district without eighth grade students to compare, it was not rated in the student growth category. But its initial report card gave it a score of 48.8 in closing gaps.
Compared to a state average of 69.9, it appeared Arrowhead left something to be desired. Its revised score came in at 62.2, still below the state average, which brought down its overall composite score.
Arrowhead was rated specifically on how it closed the gap with students with disabilities and economically disadvantaged students. One year, a group of students from those groups outperformed regular students, but their scores fell back to normal the following year, resulting in a loss of points on this year's report card.
Another discrepancy occurred because the DPI only recognizes regular high school diplomas in its scoring. Arrowhead awards equivalency diplomas to students who meet minimum state standards for graduation, but those diplomas are counted separately from those issued to other students who receive traditional diplomas.
To illustrate his point, Jefson shared data that showed that over a five-year period, the DPI identified 55 students at the high school as either economically disadvantaged or students with disabilities. Thirty-nine of those students graduated with traditional diplomas, while 16 did not, which is the number that the DPI used to calculate Arrowhead's closing gaps score.
However, after taking into account Arrowhead's equivalency diplomas, transfer students and other students who returned to get their diplomas, only three of those students actually dropped out of school, a tally that did not factor into Arrowhead's score from the DPI.
The superintendent said the school could consider doing away with the Arrowhead equivalency diplomas in order to make its scores look better, but that "would require modifying the philosophy/beliefs of Arrowhead High School on what it means to be an Arrowhead graduate," a document provided by the school read.
"The current AHS belief/practice is to provide options and alternatives for students who may struggle in the traditional class setting toward earning a high school diploma."
Doing away with the equivalency diploma would drop a handful of students from the "did not graduate" list and make Arrowhead's overall score look better in the closing gaps section, but Jefson questioned whether that was truly the mission of the DPI. Doing so would force students, who may need additional time to graduate, into a situation in which they do not receive the proper time and attention. But it would make the school's score look better on paper.
The superintendent thinks the state rushed in implementing the new report card system, and he said it needs to step back and work out the kinks before using it to grade schools. Invoking memories of the No Child Left Behind Act, the last major overhaul of the education system, Jefson said the current system is destined to end up in the same place, and the state and nation will be re-inventing the system again down the road.
"If we don't examine this critically, five or 10 years from now, we're going to be doing the same thing. Where's the accountability for legislators? Where's the accountability for DPI?" he asked.
The Arrowhead superintendent also noted a correlation between rising government control of education and falling achievement scores. He said the new system is too much a one-size-fits-all model.
"I wish they would take a year before they throw this out to the public so they get it right," he said.
"There could be some good things if it's done right," he added.
Response from other districts
Others were less critical of the new state system. The Swallow School District issued a press release after its score showed it significantly exceeded state standards.
"This represents the outstanding work of our highly qualified teaching staff, dedicated students, and supportive school community," the release said.
Kettle Moraine Superintendent Pat Deklotz told Lake Country Publications earlier this month, "We are eager for these standards, and we are eager for better accountability standards."
The Pewaukee School District embraced the scores as well.
"I am very proud that all of our schools met and exceeded expectations using the DPI's more rigorous standards. Raising the cut scores for proficiency levels raises the bar for school districts and, most importantly, for all students," Superintendent JoAnn Sternke said in a statement. "In the Pewaukee School District we will continue to focus on college and career readiness as it is making a difference in preparing students for a successful future."
In the Hartland-Lakeside School District, the district received high marks for closing its achievement gaps with children of low socioeconomic status, but the DPI's report card excluded a large group of students from its data because the district reorganized its schools two years ago when the data was being collected. Many students ended up at a different school as a result. Though Superintendent Glenn Schilling sees some kinks that need to be addressed, he is supportive of the new accountability model.
"I think that there's good data there that we need to look at. I think it really encompasses a lot. I think that there's some really important information. Do I think it needs to be refined? Absolutely. Do I think there are some issues right now the first year out of the blocks? Absolutely. We have some of our highest-performing kids that were excluded from the data," he said.
"But I think it provides you with some more well-rounded information on things. A lot broader information for schools to look at to see how they're doing."
He added, "My concern would be that sometimes people just read into a score, but there's a lot more behind it."
Nonetheless, Schilling said the initial reaction he has heard from parents has been positive. He said many appreciated that students were being evaluated on more than just a test score.
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